The ACLU of Maryland, Homeless Persons Representation Project, and Public Justice Center call on Governor Hogan to allocate $153 million to rental assistance and eviction prevention and to extend and expand the current eviction and utility shutoff moratoria.
Hundreds of thousands of Maryland families are unable to pay the rent due today, May 1, because of the economic and public health catastrophe of COVID-19. In a letter sent on April 30, 2020, the ACLU of Maryland, Homeless Persons Representation Project, and Public Justice Center called on Governor Larry Hogan to immediately allocate $153 million in Maryland’s share of federal relief funds to rental assistance and eviction prevention and to extend and expand the current eviction and utility shutoff moratoria.
“Governor Hogan’s actions to date in stopping evictions and utility shutoffs have kept countless Maryland families safe during this pandemic. Yet, as Maryland contemplates re-opening its economy, there is no clear plan to mitigate the public health disaster that a massive wave of evictions and utility shutoffs would wreak on Maryland families,” stated Matt Hill, attorney at Public Justice Center. Carolyn Johnson, attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project added: “No one should face the prospect of likely homelessness when social services providers are closed or operating at limited capacity, unemployment is soaring to record highs, medical costs are mounting, and other available financial assistance is limited at best.” Many of these increased costs are borne by our “essential” workers who are disproportionately persons of color and who are now at considerably greater risk of eviction.
The State has access to significant new federal funds under the CARES Act to provide economic relief such as rental assistance, including over $1.3 billion in the Coronavirus Relief Funds and additional Community Development Block Grant money. Many Maryland families were already struggling each month to pay rent in the face of rising housing costs and stagnant incomes. The filing of eviction actions rose from approximately 500,000 per year prior to the Great Recession and has remained above 600,000 per year since. Based on data from the National Legal of Cities, we estimate that the need for rental assistance for one year to help 141,030 cost-burdened Maryland families exceeds $1.8 billion. However, by partnering with local jurisdictions and leveraging their relief funds, the State can fund a robust emergency assistance program that would meet the immediate need through an allocation of $153 million to rental assistance relief. Rental relief and eviction prevention should include policy changes that build a more sustainable housing infrastructure including sustained increased rental assistance, establishing a right to free legal counsel to tenants facing eviction, investing in permanently affordable housing, and exploring other creative strategies for addressing this unprecedented threat to community stability. Failure to take action will likely lead to a massive wave of evictions and utility shutoffs that risks the further spread of COVID-19 throughout Maryland and undermines efforts to protect public health and well-being.
The Governor must also expand and extend the eviction moratorium to mirror new federal law that currently prohibits all evictions and late fees on certain properties through at least July 27, 2020. To date, the Governor’s eviction moratorium only applies to some eviction actions and only if the tenant can prove a documented loss of income due to COVID-19. There are significant loopholes. Many landlords have continued to file eviction actions creating a mounting backlog that will only further overwhelm the judicial system. Also, the Governor’s order does not apply to all eviction actions. Because of a significant loophole in the Executive Order, many landlords have continued to send tenants notices to vacate and to terminate leases because the tenant has a COVID-related loss of income. Federal law now prohibits all eviction actions and late fees through at least July 27, 2020, and requires a 30-day notice to vacate thereafter -- but only for properties that receive federal rent assistance or have a federally-backed mortgage. Federal law also provides opportunities for landlords to seek mortgage payment deferral. Governor Hogan should revise and extend Maryland’s order to mirror federal law for all properties in Maryland and extend the utility shutoff moratorium scheduled to expire on June 1, 2020. According to Public Justice Center attorney Zafar Shah: “This would allow some additional breathing room for rental assistance to be operationalized. We cannot risk a wave of evictions that devastates families, increases homelessness, jeopardizes public safety, and dooms economic recovery, while the system is being put into place.”